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Say "fuzzle pickles!" *SNAP*

Earthbound was developed by HAL Laboratories and Ape Studios and published by Nintendo for the SNES in April, 1994. (In Japan, it is known as Mother 2, and, obviously, it is the sequel to Mother, known as Earthbound Zero to American fans. More on this below.) As of this noding), the game is mildly uncommon, compounded by the RPG-fanatics demand running up the value. The game is especially desirable if the copy includes the Player's Guide originally packaged with the game. Of course, if you want to evade the expense and effort, the ROM, like most SNES games, is complete and emulates well. (A GBA compilation of this game and its prequel is has been released in Japan, with constant rumors of a US release.)

Earthbound is quite possibly the most bizarre RPG ever to be released in the United States, and retains a certain cult following even to this day. Rather than being a typical "Slay-the-Unspeakably-Evil-Dark-Master-and-collect-the-Widgets-Of-Power" quest, the unspeakable evil announces its presence with a meteorite curiously shaped exactly like a pizza, and attacks with hordes of zombies, spiteful crows, and 1950's robots. Why Giygas would want to conquer this planet is anybody's guess; the world seems to be filled with the Japanese idea of Americans, as drawn from '50s sitcoms and '60s B science fiction films, a twisted mix of Leave It To Beaver and The Day The Earth Stood Still.

The game doesn't just offer an amusingly twisted take on American culture. No, it parodies role-playing games too, from the avuncular mentor, a fly from outer space, who accidentally gets swatted, to the town names, like Onett, Twoson, and Threed. The game is inexplicably aggressive animals and passersby, silly status ailments like "stuffed up" and "sunstroke", hamburgers that refill your hit points (they're better with ketchup), yo-yos, baseball bats, and frying pans to subdue your foes, and insanely hilarious get-quests (to remove a giant pencil in your way, you need to go find...well, what else? A pencil eraser.)

The cast, ranging from the humorous to the simply inexplicable, is the highlight of this game. Whether it's the Runaway Five, a quintet oddly reminiscent of the Blues Brothers, or the Mr. Saturn, with their bizarre grammar and swirly hand-written font for text, or Ness's clueless parents and oddly clueful dog, even down to people who complain about their pants when you accoust them on the street, the people in this game have more personality than all the Final Fantasies combined.

Unfortunately, the game is not without flaws. The humor isn't 100% consistant, as many of the jokes are simply unfunny bathroom humor. Farts cease to be funny after about the third time. The battles are incredibly tedious, as 99.9% of them are "press A a bunch of times", and boss battles are "attack, attack, attack, heal, repeat." This is not a game to be played for the game, so much as a game to be played for the ambiance.

The game was a huge hit in Japan (released August 27, 1994 as Mother 2), and Nintendo expected similar performance in the US, leading off with a marketing blitz and shipping a Player's Guide in the box with the game. Not only that, but a truly professional job of translation was given to this game, a rare treat in RPGs of the era. Sadly, Nintendo made three key mistakes. Firstly, part of what made Mother 2 such a hit was the fact that it was the sequel to a successful RPG (one which almost made it to the US; see Earthbound Zero). Secondly, RPGs were not yet a mainstream genre in the US, and wouldn't be until after Final Fantasy VII. Lastly, the sales it would've had from the RPG hardcore were diluted by the aging graphics, juvenile theme, and the general low challenge of the game.

Why would you want to play this game? Simple. It's probably one of the funniest console games ever.

Why wouldn't you? Well, the game itself is just in the way of the ambiance. The combat is boring, levelling up is boring, and the quests are intentionally pointless, parodies of the get-quests of other RPGs.

This game is the sequel to a game that almost came to the US, known now as Earthbound Zero. There's been an abortive attempt to make a sequel for the N64/64DD (Earthbound 64/Mother 3), although there's talk of reviving the scenario for this game and putting Mother 3 on the Game Boy Advance. And, of course, Ness and a number of the Earthbound places and items made it into Super Smash Brothers and Super Smash Bros. Melee.

Sources: The unending vat of knowledge that is GameFAQs, starmen.net

I must have played a different game. While most of amib's comments seem on target, two things stick out as having nothing to do with the Earthbound I know.

I've played Earthbound fairly recently and don't recall much bathroom humor. There are some weird slapstick jokes, and a whole lot of unfunny dialogue, and (I stand corrected on this point - thanks Kyle3) one of the random townspeople indeed says "Don't stand too close to me, I just farted, heh heh," the game is hardly South Park.

Then, there's the "general low challenge". The game was hard. I've died far more often in EarthBound than any Final Fantasy game. The complaints that "leveling up is tedious" and "99.9% of the battles are 'press A a bunch of times'" seem to cancel each other out. If you spent hours fighting pointless battles to make the game easier, you missed the point. What I admired in Earthbound was that, compared to most other RPGs, the battle system was actually challenging, yet the game was still possible to get through without specifically trying to "level up".

Now, getting off of the "response to another writeup" theme - there's one aspect of this game which hasn't been covered. The music. Sure, the music is pingy and often repetitive, but it grabs you by the throat and makes you like it. Every cheesy artifact of old-style video game music seems perfectly appropriate for the situation. And though some of the battle themes will make you clutch at your eardrums in pain, every once in a while, there's a track which stands out as being truly good - Tessie's theme is a once-in-the-game treat, and Paula stands out by (contrary to most RPGs) actually having a theme more interesting than that of her male companions. (This goes along with the more prominent reversal of RPG gender roles: Paula has the ass-kicking magic spells, while Ness is the healer.)

Given these nifty aspects of the game, it's really too bad about the quests. I'll make the point more strongly: they really are fucking tedious. I'd go back and play the game now if, for example, it weren't for the whole desert area. Damn those desert monkeys.

Earthbound represents more than just a game; it is a culture unto itself. Since its original American release in 1994, it has developed a huge cult following (far more so than the first game in the series, Mother, which was never released in America and has been played by few people outside of Japan). I am one of these cultists. About once every year or three, the itch hits me and I replay this game. It hasn't gotten boring for me yet in the ten years I've been playing it, and it won't for a good long while.

First, the basics. It was developed by Shigesato Itoi, a Japanese cartoonist. The plot is deliberately out of a bad 1950s sci-fi movie. An evil entity from another dimension, Giygas — while the game was in development he was called The Geek — is attacking Earth from ten years in the future, and his coming is heralded by flying saucers appearing, meteors striking in small-town America, and dogs (and snakes, and yaks, and policemen, and aging hippies) turning evil. You play as Ness, a typical teenaged boy from Eagleland (read: America) whose developing psychic powers can be used for (to paraphrase a blurb from long ago) fighting enemies, helping his friends, and cheating at volleyball.

You and a constantly shifting party of friends, man's best friends, teddy bears, giant men-turned-into-dungeons and insects (not to mention the three other "main" party members) travel across the world, from your sleepy hometown, to a British boarding school, to faraway Scarabia and Dalaam. Although the basic framework of traditional console RPGs is present, it is stretched and mutated to fit the game's style.

Almost everything in this game is either satire, weird Japanese humor that may or may not translate well into English (resulting in an inimitable style), or other bizarreness. You'll meet characters like the blues band The Runaway Five (renamed from the Runaway Brothers, as their source was a little too obvious), the genius inventor the Apple Kid (and his immaculate rival the Orange Kid), ride Nessie, fly in spaceships, interact with the bizarre Mr. Saturns in their hidden valley, and generally experience a range of weirdness not seen in any other game.

Items work strangely compared to some games — as the heroes are not supermen, they can only carry so much, and must divide the load between themselves, or have them stored in a warehouse for later delivery. Puzzles are solved with items like the Pencil Eraser, the stronger Eraser Eraser, the King Banana, or a host of other weird gewgaws. HP-restoring items are almost exclusively food (although you do get a "Hand-Aid" at one point), which can be enhanced by using condiments to enhance flavor. Because it is just normal food, you can find more by digging through the occasional trash can, ordering a pizza (guaranteed to arrive anywhere within space and time within three minutes or your money back), shopping around in a Middle Eastern bazaar, or haggling with the waiters in a posh resort restaurant to smuggle food out for you.

Many standbys of the genre were altered in order to accomodate the setting of Earthbound: in order to save your game, you must call your father on the telephone and tell him about what happened — and don't forget your ATM card, or you won't be able to withdraw money from the bank to use a pay phone! Instead of fighting with swords and shields (with the sometimes exception of Crown Prince Poo), your characters use yo-yos, baseball bats, pop guns, and frying pans. If you want to get quickly to the next town, you can hop aboard a bus, or just bum a ride from the Runaway Five, who you repeatedly rescue from evil managers and similar types.

Battle is often criticized, but I'm really not all that irritated with it and its shortcomings. It's heavily turn-based — you choose the attacks for your entire party one after the other, and then the round plays itself out. You can attack normally, use psychic abilities (read: "magic"), fight with stuff out of your bizarre menagerie of an inventory, or even pray for divine intervention (which more often than you'd think gets your party hit by lightning). If you're tired with repeated battles (which aren't random, but it's not always easy to avoid running into enemies in dungeons), there's an option to Auto Fight, with the computer having your party use their normal weapons and heal as needed. If you get into a fight with an enemy who's much weaker than you are, the battle will probably won't even happen: you'll win without leaving the overworld screen, and the game will award experience and items to the party without any fuss.

The diversity of monsters you fight really helps to enforce the game's mood. Because normal things are being influenced by Giygas' evil, you'll find yourself fighting stray dogs, off-duty policemen, angry mothers with agendas, modern art, space robots from the future, evil stop signs, ancient mummies, enormous molecules, djinns, and a ridiculous range of other bizarre and funny opponents. And they're not killed at the end of battle — they return to their senses, sometimes even helping you afterwards.

In this game, don't expect to be poisoned or silenced often — it's more likely that you'll catch a cold, a flu, sunstroke, have your head turned into a diamond, get high on spores from an evil walking mushroom, or even get homesick (in which case, you'd better head home or at the least call your Mom if you don't want Ness to get sick of saving the world and break down into tears in the middle of a battle). You can heal your characters through medication, psychic abilities, or simply checking them into a hospital (or, in the case of shrooms, selling them to an off-duty orderly).

The game will eventually take you around the world, into the future, into the Bizarro version of the town of Fourside, to a lost underworld full of dinosaurs and bad puns, and at one point into your own psyche, clad only in your jammies (your birthday suit in the original Japanese version) to converse with the people and things you have bottled up within your mind.

I can't stress enough how much I love this game. Give it a chance if you can find a copy, play it through, laugh at the jokes you understand, accept the ones you don't, and hope beyond hope that Mother 3 will be translated into English once it's finished. The game is on a level of its own, as the slavish hordes of Earthbound cultists will tell you. There is no other game which I'd rather bring with me to a desert island, and for good reason. Someday, when I'm old, senile, and irritable, I'll still be quoting Earthbound and annoying my great-grandchildren.

No Crying Until the Ending

Aye, there be spoilers aboard this here ship if that be yer worries, matey.

"Ah. What’s quietly flowing beneath the surface is a child. My daughter never did play through the games in the end, but they were a clear letter to her. They were a letter to my own daughter who I couldn’t see for a while due to divorce issues." - Shigesato Itoi, creator and sole author of the Mother/Earthbound series and a revered copywriter in Japan

To save your game or see how much money has been deposited into your bank account in Mother 2, a Japanese video game released in the US in 1995 as Earthbound for the Super Nintendo, you have to call your dad. Curiously, you never, ever see him at home, or anywhere else for that matter. Perhaps it's a critique of divorce, a comment on Japanese commuter culture and the work-filled life of the average salaryman, or just a simple reflection on Itoi's own life. I’m not sure, but it’s nice to at least know that your ol’ dad still cares. Why else would he keep detailed logs of your experience points and beg you to take a rest if you play for too long?

Oh, and yeah - if you haven't figured it out yet, you're a kid. To be specific, you're Ness, a 13-year-old boy from the suburb of Onett, which has a typical American small town feel and is located in the aptly named country of Eagleland. The year is 199X. Armed with only a cracked Little League baseball bat and a few deadly psychic powers, you've been tasked by the time-traveling bee Buzz Buzz to save the world from the evil, all-encompassing powers of the alien Giygas. Giygas, it should be mentioned, can take control of humans, animals, and even inanimate objects like vinyl records, turning them into evil, malevolent psychopaths bent on your destruction. He wants to destroy the world, and you’re the only person standing in his way.

Sound daunting? Not sure what you should do next? Well, first of all, you could start by changing out of those striped jammies. Your mom's not going to let you leave the house looking like that. I’m serious!

Snowman: "We had fun one snowy day. I melted, but I am still real in your memory."

Earthbound is an RPG, or role-playing game. In it you travel from town to "dungeon" to town, talking to non-player characters (NPCs) in the hopes they'll drop a hint or amusing anecdote, all while battling foes using a turn-based system that's a logical evolution from the old D&D games sweaty nerds much like ourselves still play in basements across the world. While that may sound eerily similar to just about every other RPG in existence, there's something very different about Earthbound. People routinely call the game trippy, mind-bending, psychedelic, druggy… whatever – you name it.

How did this game, published by Nintendo of all companies, get such an illicit reputation? Maybe it's because of the hallucinatory battle backgrounds that twist and contort like a lava lamp while you fight, which Itoi coined “video relaxants”. Or, maybe, it's the coffee and the magic cakes made from mysterious leftovers that leave you feeling like you just took too much of the brown acid at Woodstock. It could even be a reaction to the Amboy Dukes-style journey to the center of your mind that is the land of Magicant, taken right out of the climax of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. And, of course, there’s the fact that everything has been sprinkled with copious helpings of Beatles references, from a literal yellow submarine to the original title’s intentional reference to John Lennon’s gut-wrenching “Mother”.

OK – so no wonder people think Earthbound was conceived under “altered” states. However, I can’t help but think that wasn’t Itoi’s real goal with the game. It’s probably not a coincidence that in the first town you spend about half the time beating hippies senseless with a baseball bat while a knockoff of Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" plays in the background, until each wild-haired dropout comes down from their collective bad trip. I like to think of it as Itoi's cutesy way of saying, "Hey, this game isn't just a bunch of hippie nonsense and trippy jokes! Look deeper!"

Itoi’s slogan for Mother 3 probably describes the entire series best: "Strange, funny, and heartrending." In Earthbound, the strange and funny are there just to butter you up for the heartrending. Itoi himself even owned up to it, confessing in an interview: “You could even say I only added the funny and ridiculous lines into the mix so that I could include one heartrending line with them.” It’s all part of the plan, you see.

If You Hear Any Funny Jokes, Be Sure You Let Loose and Laugh

Arthur Koestler, in the book The Act of Creation, theorized that a good joke works by replacing the expected outcome of a train of thought with an unexpected twist, usually one that’s less serious. The tension this disharmony creates in our minds is then resolved and released with a laugh or smirk. Koestler compared it to the feeling of “eureka!” – you know, like when Archimedes jumped out of his bathtub and ran naked down the Main Street of ancient Syracuse because he’d just connected two different, really cool perceptions into one beautiful, fully synthesized idea. Yes, that feeling. It’s the joy of making the incompatible compatible, and it’s at the heart of Earthbound.

There’s little doubt that Earthbound’s sense of humor would’ve received a big, fat stamp of approval from Koestler. It’s all about unpredictability, whether you’re fighting an abstract painting, using an eraser eraser to erase an iron eraser blocking your path, or having completely off-the-wall conversations with another character. I particularly like this gem from a chubby, ingenious inventor nicknamed Apple Kid: “The chance of Giygas gaining victory with his monstrous plan is 99%. However, your courage has produced a 1% chance that Giygas fails. I must try to come to a deeper understanding of this trait called 'courage’.”(Gee… thanks, Apple Kid.) The little love story between a black sesame seed and a white sesame seed in Dusty Dunes Desert is also memorable and definitely worth hunting out.

In Earthbound, you start to pretty much expect the unexpected, and generally, the unexpected is something strange or funny, like most of the examples I just gave. That’s what makes it so emotionally powerful when Itoi consciously chooses to make the unexpected deep, poignant, and enlightening instead. You don’t expect it. It hits you while your gloves are down like a rocket punch from Super Punch Out!!’s steroid-abusing boss Nick Bruiser. Ouch!

Is It Your Hobby or Something to Bother Others While They Pray?!

For me, Earthbound's true “eureka!” moment occurs during the final fight against Giygas, who’s now an out of control amorphous morphing brainless entity of complete psychic doom. Nothing you or team members Paula, Jeff, or Poo try will defeat the mighty Giygas – not even PSI Rockin' Ω, and that’s one powerful psychic attack! It seems hopeless. There’s really only one thing left to do: pray, out of sheer desperation.

Pray is Paula’s special ability, and for most of the game it’s as useless as writing a letter to Santa Claus. Try it now, though, and something miraculous happens. Your prayer somehow reaches the hearts and minds of “all the people of earth” – yes, even you, the player. Then, in a scene all too reminiscent of the O’Jays' “Love Train”, the power of our combined love and concern for Ness and his friends mortally wounds Giygas. The world, at last, is safe.

That's where the game finally clicks for me, where the various flavors of strange, funny, and heartrending mix together to make one amazing stew of life-affirming goodness. Earthbound is Itoi’s love letter to mankind, rubbing our shoulders, telling us to always look on the bright side, and to never give up hope. Life's challenges will just make us stronger.It's a pure reflection of Itoi’s personal philosophies and ethos. Here’s a man that considers desperation a virtue, a sign of defiance against the odds, and once said: “I’ve had this experience myself – whenever I'm feeling sluggish and exhausted, it's absolutely certain that good things will follow. When you're given an overwhelming problem you just can't deal with, the only way to cope with it is to completely mobilize your heart and your mind and make a strenuous effort to get through it.”

How often do you beat a final boss in a video game be being pacifist? Simply put, it’s frickin' awesome.

Now You Can Start Crying

If that doesn’t sell you, you should check out the game if only to experience the colorful, cartoonish graphics and the music that does things with the Super Nintendo’s Sony SPC700 music chip that I know it’s momma wouldn’t have approved of. We’re talking real samples from things like the intro to the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love”, liberal use of phase distortion and delay, and some rocking, more conventional tunes with innocent, childlike melodies that'll daze and astound with extraordinary grace. I actually have the soundtrack on my iPod.

Earthbound: it’s for grownups, kids, and even your sister.

Earthbound was the original game that was not a game. It never lets you escape. Just as you are settling in, finding yourself engaged, surrounded by that thin egg shell, sheltered from the outside world, Earthbound reaches over and taps you on the shoulder.

Sometimes it's explicit. You, the player, are prompted directly. Told how to play, or asked for your thoughts on some event. But more often it takes the form of small irritations. Why, for example, is the inventory system so cluttered and difficult to navigate? The reason becomes apparent as you progress through the game. It's because the developers of Earthbound weren't making a game and so were not concerned about the inventory system. Earthbound is all about translating the vision of Shigesato Itoi into some consumable format.

Ultimately this vision is about childhood and artistically it achieves this. In its small cartridge with its bright graphics it looks like a child's lunchbox. The music sounds like someone's reconstruction of a series of small tracks heard in their daily life. Music from films, or overhead in convenience stores. Soundtracks to cartoons and rock music from your older sister's CD collection, heard late at night through the walls.

The story has the same uneasiness of child's play. Why were the games we played so often about killing monsters, about being away from home, being alone, or being with friends? Like real play Earthbound has undertones of loneliness and identity that give it a rounder feel.

As children we were inside a bubble. We were constrained by our daily routine. We longed to push against those walls which constrained us. But we knew we didn't have the power, so we obsessed over them instead. Once we had explored the center we looked to the edges for cracks and oddities. The boundary became as big as the volume.

The reason Earthbound is a game is because childhood was all about games. To children the real world is largely a world which tells you what to do, and how to act. In imagination play decisions hold weight, because they provide some initial sense of self. There are also systems. Understanding and controlling these systems gives an even more powerful form of autonomy. Not just an ability to influence oneself but of influencing the world around you.

The game inside Earthbound is not the greatest game in the traditional sense. Like the imaginary games we played as children there are some interesting aspects, some little quirks and characteristics that make it stand apart, but ultimately it doesn't say anything deep. It mainly borrows from other JRPGs.

But like tag or hide and seek, this game doesn't need to be good. Earthbound uses it as a tool, not as an end product. To criticise this is criticise poor quality paints, or weak music production.

That aside, to some gamers the breaking of the fourth wall is unforgivable. It is simply too painful to be shaken back into the real world by some minor issue with inconsequential mechanics. To these gamers Earthbound will always remain a mediocre game dressed up in a nice little outfit. But I think it is more.

In my childhood one of my most distinct memories is sitting by a small tree in my primary school, picking the dark green rubbery leaves off of it. I loved that tree. I could interact with it; feel the leaves, smell them, pick them, see them. This was something I was free to do at play time - it was not part of the schedule, and wasn't exactly sanctioned. I hadn't picked this action from an option list of things to do. I was pushed up against the boundary of my agency, studying it, and although it was so small and insignificant, it was important to me.

Earthbound has the children in the middle of the playground, playing football and kiss chase. It has friends and enemies performing childhood drama. But it also has cracked paint on the walls, and cold cinder blocks behind the shed, and muddy frogs at the bottom of the old pond, and most importantly, my tree.

All sorts of people tell me about their memories,
about all the things I left in the playground called Earthbound.
From the tiny safety pins, broken pieces of colored glass to the withering leaves.
When I ask them, "how do you remember so much?"
With their eyes gleaming, they say,
"I love that world so much I remember everything about it."
I reply right away saying "me too."

Ah hah! That may be it.
Maybe I wanted to make a playground.
A playground filled with things no matter how small or unwanted,
they would all be kept dear in people's hearts.
It looks like all my friends from around the world have discovered the theme to the game as they were playing – even though I didn't think I gave it one.
That's right, that's something I also wanted to do all along.

- Shigesato Itoi

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